Saturday, July 16, 2011

When pies were sixpence and we used to swim in dams

‘All retail’s fucked,’ my daughter said to me this morning when I mentioned the fact that the book store, Readers Feast, is closing down. Not just book stores it seems. People buy on line or they go to markets for their fruit and vegetables.

To me this is all about change – relentless, ruthless, inexorable change. Sometimes it excites me, other times it terrifies me.

One of my daughters is leaving home today, for good you might assume. She moves into a small apartment near the city with her boyfriend.

How different this is from my day when such an arrangement would have constituted an act of living in sin. Now it’s commonplace for couples to cohabitate well before marriage, and often times without marrying at all.

When I think back to the changes that have taken place throughout my relatively short life time my first thought lands on our shopping arrangements.

When I was a child in the early sixties we did all our shopping around the corner at the local shops. The grocer, Mr Brockhoff, owned the corner shop, where we bought flour, rice, soap, toilet paper, the sorts of things you buy at supermarkets today. Next door to him stood the butcher, then the greengrocer and milk bar. The chemist and newsagent were opposite on the other side of Canterbury Road along with a women’s clothes shop and another milk bar. There was a toy shop, which also sold books and there may have been the office of a lawyer or accountant as well – the composition of our local shopping centre.

Occasionally my mother took the bus to Camberwell to buy items that could not be found locally. To me a trip to Camberwell was like a trip to the city, up and down the Bourke Road hill the shops seemed as grand as I imagined were the shops of Europe.

Bourke Road is still a shopping precinct but few of the shops, few if any of the shops, in existence today were there fifty years ago.

‘When pies were sixpence and we used to swim in dams’ my husband jokes whenever someone complains about things not being the same as they once were. As if the past were preferable.

The biggest changes occur in families. One daughter leaves home and another who left home a long time ago has given birth to a beautiful son, a second son whose name is Art.

I resist the temptation to write about my children. They prefer to stay out of my ramblings, but I cannot resist a word or two that acknowledges this change in the composition of my family.

My mother loved having babies. It has always been the hall mark of her life. She measured her worth in the number of children she brought into the world.

And so we get into the habit of counting. My mother’s seventh great grandchild from among her twenty three grandchildren and her nine children.

She prides herself on the fact that none of her offspring or the offspring of her offspring are on drugs. I am not sure why drugs feature so heavily in my mother's imagination. In her mind it seems, drug addiction is the worst thing that could ever befall a person.


There are one or two or maybe even three in my extended family with significant alcohol problems, one or two with significant social problems, one or two or three or four or more whose marriages have fallen through or whose marriages are about to fall through or will one day collapse but my mother focuses on the absence of drug addiction among her progeny and that is proof enough both of how fortunate she is and a measure of her good enough parenting.

It is easy to boast about our children, to see ourselves reflected in their glories, to feel a load of pleasure in their achievements as if they are our own, and to avoid looking too closely underneath to know that our children also suffer.

I hate to hear my mother talk about her children’s achievements, including my own, because I know that none of these so-called achievements have been without effort and pain and struggle and yet when my mother talks about them it is as if she believes they reflet her goodness and nothing more, her goodness and our father’s stellar intellect, for that is the one thing my mother will lay claim to for our father – his intellect, as if her were a genius, which he was not.

It is a good thing that babies come together as the product of at least two sets of genes initially and further back the product of two sets of grandparents on both sides going back in multiples of four. It makes for each baby’s uniqueness.

Art means ‘little bear’. I think of our little Art and his big brother Leo, who at three and a half is still little, whose name, needless to say, means lion. The lion and the bear, even a little one. Magnificent animals and if they had been born girls would we elect to focus on such strong animal images from their names. I wonder.

I heard recently about a couple in America who are trying to bring up their child in a gender neutral environment and how their neighbours and the media have vilified them.

It puzzles me how this couple can manage to do this when gender is such an inescapable biological fact of life, and the influence of socio-cultural constructions and the like are equally powerful.

In the end I think I’m glad for gender but I wish sometimes we were not so polarised into masculine and feminine. I like to think of these gender types across a spectrum with fluidity between not one category and the other, as if on a continuous line or even a circle that moves around with varying degrees of masculinity and femininity and all the variable ways these two broad genders types can manifest themselves in between.
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